On Monday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates announced that he would be donating $100 million dollars toward Alzheimer’s research.
The donation will be invested immediately, with $50 million going toward the Dementia Discovery Fund, a British venture capital fund, and the remaining $50 million funneled to startup ventures working toward finding a cure to Alzheimer’s. The investment is separate from from Gates’ philanthropic Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
That’s a lot of money, even from a billionaire like Gates. But it can be hard to wrap your head around $100 million, and it’s fair to wonder exactly how this will help in the fight against the disease, which is characterized by deteriorating cognitive function and the complete loss of memory.
The disease has no cure—yet.
Gates wrote in a post on GatesNotes that he was inspired to invest toward finding a cure for Alzheimer’s after several members of his family fell ill to the disease. But beyond his personal connection, Gates cited a lack of research on African Americans and Latinos, stilted data, and burdensome methods that make it difficult for researchers to test out drugs and therapies.
It’s also extremely expensive to treat Alzheimer’s, Gates noted. “I first became interested in Alzheimer’s because of its costs—both emotional and economic—to families and healthcare systems,” he wrote. “The financial burden of the disease is much easier to quantify. A person with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia spends five times more every year out-of-pocket on healthcare than a senior without a neurodegenerative condition… According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Americans will spend $259 billion caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias in 2017. Absent a major breakthrough, expenditures will continue to squeeze healthcare budgets in the years and decades to come.”
This falls into Gates’ dedication to philanthropy in the public health sphere. The Gates Foundation has invested millions in ambitious global health initiatives, like improving maternal health care, eradicating polio and malaria, and extending the lives of HIV-positive patients. The millennial version of Gates, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, has also announced a similar initiative through his wife and his Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, pledging to donate $3 billion over the next few years to “curing disease.”
But does money help solve seemingly insurmountable diseases? When it comes to Alzheimer’s, the answer is a resounding yes, according to Harry Johns, the CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“The biggest problem in the drug pipeline is that we have historically too little investment,” he said, citing expensive grants and cellular research and experiments that have to be conducted prior to human testing, which takes years and millions to achieve before any drug can even apply for recognition by the FDA. That’s why, despite over 400 drug trials in the last 15 years, there’s been zero treatments.
And that’s a problem in and of itself, Johns says: It’s not just drugs we need to be considering. “We need to stop progression, even potentially stopping it before symptoms occur,” Johns said, saying gene therapy could be one way to consider the treatment of the incurable disease. “We can potentially hold off the impact of the disease. We need a variety of approaches for innovative treatments, but we don't have one thing that works.”
Gates’ donation is going into a “private-public research partnership,” and that’s important to note because the current model of relying only on government-funded initiatives is simply not working. The fact that Gates is reaching out to startups and a venture capital fund to help find alternative, innovative ways to cure Alzheimer’s is noteworthy: The natural pipeline for science and research has always relied on universities but Gates is looking to startups to think about the problem with fresh eyes, including considering how the brain and immune system communicate through lymphatic vessels, which carry a fluid that fight foreign particles while also clearing out cellular trash. Research published just last month suggests a failure in lymphatic vessels could be the commonality between Alzheimer’s patients.
Strained science funding plays a role, too. The government has steadily been investing less in basic, foundational level science, which makes understanding basic cellular biology—like even the existence of lymphatic vessels—difficult to fund in the first place.
And that can affect not only our understanding of Alzheimer’s, but how it gets treated, leading to prolonged suffering from patients. Gates said as much in his statement, subtly taking on the health care funding system and insurance in America. The disease is particularly economically distressful because it’s degenerative over the course of decades, which means that care often lingers on for years and is extremely expensive.
“We’re making sufficient progress, but we need to get to those outcomes sooner rather than later,” Johns said. “More than 5.5 million people have this disease”—and every minute, another person develops. For Alzheimer’s patients, Gates’ investment might be the game-changer they’ve been waiting for.